Well, at least we now know Priti Patel is alive. Today the Home Secretary became the latest member of the Cabinet wheeled out by Number 10 to not reveal facts about pressing issues, and to not properly answer the few decent questions that get asked, other than via slogans, platitudes, buzzwords and a constant refrain about how hard they are working.
I would bloody hope you are working hard. There is a major crisis, people are dying in their thousands, and you are the government. As Bill Clinton once said, ‘there is no blue ribbon in these jobs. The job is the blue ribbon.’
And before any fellow grammar Nazis point out my two split infinitives in the opening paragraph, I know, I know. That is how bad this is getting. Shouting at the TV is really not good for me or my grammar, or my language. Day after day, bad presentationally from the government, bad journalistically from the media. Today’s, against very stiff competition, was one of the worst, up there with Alok Sharma burbling on about small businesses when the country – and more importantly the nurses – were crying out to know why they were still not getting the protective equipment they had long been promised. Up there with Boris Johnson urging everyone to stay home and then saying he would try and see his mother for Mother’s Day. Up there with him vowing to ‘send the virus packing.’ Up there with the time we were told it would make matters worse if schools were closed. There is a long list.
But despite Priti Patel’s best efforts, I think Matt Hancock is still the holder of the title for worst of many bad moments, and that was his shocking answer yesterday when asked simply to say how many NHS front-line workers had lost their lives to Covid-19, and whether they were being investigated to ensure lessons were learned so others were saved.
It was one, indeed the only one, of the 20 questions I had suggested journalists put yesterday in a piece I wrote for The Article.
Talk Radio. ‘Can I ask how many frontline NHS workers have died from Covid-19, and has there been an investigatory process so lessons are learned and this doesn’t happen to their colleagues?’
In what future seminars on leadership failure will study for years ahead, Mr Hancock, the political head of the NHS, the man who keeps talking about ‘my colleagues on the frontline’ in an effort to associate himself with the more heroic part of the government response to this disaster, said these words. ‘I think this is a question for you Ruth,’ throwing the ball, to use a phrase used by the Prime Minister when he did likewise at an earlier briefing, to Ruth May, Chief Nurse.
I actually gasped as Mr Hancock said it. The gasping continued through an evening when I felt so angry I had to be restrained by my partner from going over the top in my twitter tirade, and eventually turned my phone off. What else can one do but get angry though, watching on as government and media fail to discharge their responsibilities to the public?
I am still angry and gasping at the thought of it now, when I see how so few in the media bothered to gasp at all, and how the Opposition stayed relatively silent too. The efforts papers like the Sun, the Times, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Express and others go to in avoidance of actually spelling out what is happening, opting either for speculation about the future, or soap opera personality stuff about now, is hideous to behold.
Had this been a minister in the Labour government, in a similar situation, showing such a lack of empathy for the people working and dying in service of the public, trying to clear up a mess in part created by government decisions as the crisis began, the media and the Tories would have gone into 24/7 meltdown. Tony Blair and I would probably have had a discussion, as I went to deal with the media fallout, about whether actually the minister could carry on.
Think back to the Sun and the rage they splashed all over the front page when they decided Gordon Brown’s handwriting in a letter to the widow of a dead soldier was insufficiently dignified for the moment? I wonder if Mr Hancock or anyone else (see question 14 yesterday) has written at all, never mind in bad handwriting, to the families of the doctors and nurses, carers and public transport workers who have lost their lives, in some cases surely because protective equipment promised by the Prime Minister ‘by the end of the week’ on March 15 was not delivered?
This is the same Sun which is currently covering this crisis in a manner that would make Kim Jong-Un blush, as a Mills and Boon love story for Boris Johnson. So the welcome news of the Prime Minister being moved from intensive care is splashed with the headline ‘now that’s a Good Friday.’ This on the day the death toll reached new heights and suggested we were heading to an even worse outcome than Spain or Italy. Good Friday. What planet are they on? Sadly, we know the answer. The Murdoch planet, where if Rupert says they have to be pro-Boris, whatever the realities, they go into overdrive.
I wish Mr Johnson no ill will in his battle with a horrible illness. But the truth is his being sidelined is being relentlessly used by his supporters to distract from the realities of the catastrophe that is unfolding across the country. A catastrophe which may well have been made worse by decisions he made – or more to the point didn’t make – early on.
It was hard yesterday not to gasp at Ruth May’s answer as well. She is the chief nurse of England, not the chief spokesman for Mr Hancock and Mr Johnson. She wished the Prime Minister a speedy recovery. Fine. But where was the genuine empathy for the dead and dying? Where was the spelling out of the reality she must be hearing from nurses all around the country, because everyone who knows nurses is hearing it, that many feel scared and badly protected? With what possible justification could she say – and why did Mr Hancock not allow the reporter a follow up? – that it would not be appropriate to say how many had died or to name them?
First, she had not been asked to name them. The question was how manyhad died? As it happens, provided the families were content, as those named so far have been, including the son whose moving interview I later saw on BBC London, who was clear his doctor father had died because of failure to be properly equipped, it is entirely appropriate to name them. It is certainly not just appropriate but essential that the public can know how many have died and that all who work in the NHS are aware of the risks.
So today I suggested in another piece for The Article that If Mr Hancock was doing the briefing today, he should begin with an apology, and then give the numbers he was asked for yesterday, along with the other data; that he should then pay a proper tribute to those who died. Not the formulaic ‘thoughts and prayers are with their loved ones,’ which has been delivered dead-eyed day after day, but a tribute to who they were and what they did. And yes, a promise that all their deaths will be properly investigated.
As for the journalists, I suggested that whoever was appearing, they should apologise on behalf of Mr Hancock and the Chief Nurse, and do as suggested above … data, and genuine tribute. It was Mrs Patel, not Mr Hancock. She didn’t. To the journalists, yesterday was perhaps a foreign country, though Channel 4’s Inigo Gilmore asked a good set of questions based on nurses’ complaints that they were nit properly protected. He gave her more than once chance to apologise to families of people who had died because of this lack of protection and the Home Secretary offered the weasely ‘I’m sorry if that is how they feel but this is so hard and we are working flat out, night and day, Herculean, cliche, jargon, buzzword, slogan …’
The public are rightly giving the government a fair amount of slack right now, because the Prime Minister is ill, and the challenge is enormous. But minsters are making a monumental error if they think that goodwill can survive the consistent poor performance we saw both before and since Mr Johnson was taken ill. If they do not up their game on every level, they really are heading for meltdown, no matter how sycophantic the media.
Just bear this in mind, 22 years almost to the day of the Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to Northern Ireland … in just four days in 2020, almost as many people have died from Covid-19 as died during 30 years of the Troubles. Sixty-seven British people lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks. 96 died in the Hillsborough disaster. 179 UK soldiers died fighting in Iraq. 3,600 died in the Troubles. Almost 9,000 have died from Covid-19 already, not counting many more dying at home or in care homes, the deaths often recorded as caused by other conditions, but where it is the virus that has taken them.
It is time that government action, and media coverage, reflected the scale of what is happening. Both are a long way off it.
Ps if you want to read about a Prime Minister who has worked in Downing Street, and who is doing a great job, here is a piece I wrote for the Independent today about Jacinda Ardern, PM of New Zealand.